Comparison of Madness:
Emperor Nero and the Character of Atreus
It is certain that the characterization by
Seneca of Atreus in his tragedy entitled the Thyestes is influenced by Nero
and the close relationship Seneca had with the emperor. The works of Seneca were often influences by
his personal life rather than any connection with a mythological
foundation. Senecas epic tragedy,
Thyestes is perhaps the best example of this as Senecas purging of his
personal life through his literary works.
This paper shall examine the tragedy of Thyestes in relation to
Senecas personal life, with an emphasis on how the character of Atreus is a
representation of the emperor Nero.
Although frequently categorized among the
Roman writers, Seneca was from the provinces in Spain and journeyed to Rome in
a later part of his life. Seneca became
a writer and politician, and was banished from Rome by an angry Emperor
Claudius. Eventually, the Lady
Agrippina asked Seneca to return to Rome to become the young Neros childhood
tutor. Because of his favored petition
with Nero, Seneca became one of the most trusted advisors of the young
However, Seneca often found himself in the
position of watchdog, where he forced his own perceptions onto Nero in order
to ensure that the young emperor would not destroy either himself or the Roman
Empire through misguided behaviors. Yet
Seneca was unable to avoid some of the more pressing plots, and historians theorize
that he was involved in helping murder the emperors mother, the Lady
Agrippina. Seneca was finally unable to
deal with Neros obsessions and mood swings and 62 CE. he left the city of
Rome. Three years later, Seneca was
accused of taking part in a plot against Nero and he willingly committed
suicide to stave off the accusations.
Eight of Senecas works have survived the
ages, and these pieces draw heavily on both the Greek and the Roman
traditions. Foremost among Senecas
works are his tragedies, which draw upon the Greek mythologies but also promote
the rich Roman literary tradition.
Instead of being designed for public performances, these tragedies
appear to be more along the lines of private moments of catharsis.
Mot personal, and certainly the most
gruesome, of these plays is the tragedy of Thyestes. The play has been considered an epic study
in madness, where the doomed character of Atreus is similar in almost every
respect to that of Nero. Through the
actions of Atreus, it is apparent that Seneca is telling the readers about the
internal struggles of Nero. It can be
seen through his writing that Seneca desperately loved Nero yet was powerless
to stop his eventual fall and destruction.
The Character of Atreus
The character of Atreus was, in the Greek
tradition, the son of Pelops and Hippodamia.
Atreus was also the father of the Greek king Agamemnon. The myth of Atreus had that character enter
into a blood feud with his brother Thyestes, eventually having Atreus slip so
far into a vengeful madness that he served a banquet to Thyestes of his own
Seneca was truthful to this original myth
in almost every respect, yet he drew out the agony of Thyestes and the madness
of Atreus in new ways. The prologue to
the play has the ghost of Tantalus taunted from Hell by a Fury. Tantalus, the character of a myth separate
from that of Thyestes but the grandfather to both Thyestes and Atreus, has long
been tormented in Hell though the constant offering of food that he can never
touch. The Fury warns Tantalus that his
grandsons are in need of guidance, as they appear fated to destroy the other,
and that the Fury might need to intervene to prevent the slaughter of the good
man Thyestes. Tantalus warns the Fury
that killing either man would be sinful and that the Fury should instead
concentrate on keeping the alters clean.
The feud between Atreus and Thyestes begins
with the supposed rape of Atreus wife by Thyestes and the subsequent theft of
the Golden Fleece. Atreus is the king
of the island state Argos, the land where the hero Jason returned with the
Golden Fleece after his quest was completed, Atreus feels that the loss of the
Golden Fleece is a direct blow to his honor and abilities as king.
Atreus is not so upset about the fact that
his brother raped his wife Aerope, as he is concerned over the parentage of his
children. The two sons that were born
could have been fathered by either man, although there are strong hints that
Thyestes is the rightful father. To
test if the two male children, Agamemnon and Menelaus, were his, Atreus decided
to pit them in the fight against Thyestes.
He believes that if the two children were fathered by his brother, they
would not be able to raise a hand in violence against Thyestes in what Atreus
considered rightful punishment. And in
an additional display of madness, Atreus determined that the best means of
punishing his brother was to have Thyestes tear and eat of the flesh of his own
The treatment of the people of Argos is
another indication that Atreus is insane.
He forces himself on his people, and makes them support his actions
regardless of consequence. His citizens
are terrified of their king, and the minister frequently advises Atreus that
his course of rule is not the way to govern a people. The minister warns that the kingdom will fall when there is
neither shame nor law nor trust nor piety.
Despite the council of his minister, Atreus
determines that the only way to properly punish his brother is to have him eat
his children in the space of a normal banquet.
Atreus states, in words that clearly indicate his madness:
“My spirit rouses, as that of a
sick man who drags himself from his bed to go and vomit. I must dare something
atrocious, spectacular, so bloody, and altogether beastly that my own brother
will be driven to envy, even as he suffers its dire effects. His proud spirit will break, as mine will
heal to see it. The gory pudding stands on the banquet table. We must serve
each other and ourselves.”
Atreus then lures his brother to the island
kingdom with the promise of allowing him to share in his throne, and then
butchers his three sons in a sacrifice.
After killing these children and preparing them as if for a feast,
Thyestes eats of his childrens flesh and enjoys the dish until a messenger
arrives and tells him what has been done to his children. Wanting proof, Thyestes is shown his
childrens head and hands and begs Atreus for a burial, but Atreus laughs and
turns his brother away.
Comparisons Between The Myth and the Reality
The tragedy of Thyestes is truly bitter,
more because the horrific themes found within the story are founded upon
Senecas own relationship with Nero than due to the nature of the myth.
Taken apart from the context of Seneca and
Nero, the myth is a teaching fable that indicates that animosity between
brothers will always result in destruction.
The significance of cooking and eating the children represents the
perversion of: a sacred rite so
degenerate that it terrifies the gods is the ultimate desecration of
religion.” (Pratt: 102)
Beyond this, however, there is no true indication of madness, rather
simply the presence of undying hatred and the theme of revenge.
Yet in Senecas retelling, the character of
Atreus takes on a dimension of insanity.
Worse, it can be seen that his insanity does not grow and consume him,
but rather springs fully formed from the mind of the crazed king. (Tarrant:
In respect to Nero, this clearly indicates
the influence of that mad emperor in the character of Atreus. The histories by Suetonius chronicle this in
Chapters XXVII-XXIX. The historian
describes how, after very little preamble, the madness of Nero springs fully
formed from his being. Among the worst
of what Nero was wont to do included:
Nero castrated the boy Sporus and
actually tried to make a woman of him; and he married him with all the usual
ceremonies, including a dowry and a bridal veil, took him to his house attended
by a great throng, and treated him as his wife (Warmington: 144)
so prostituted his own chastity that after defiling almost every part of his
body, he at last devised a kind of game, in which, covered with the skin of
some wild animal, he was let loose from a cage and attacked the private parts
of men and women, who were bound to stakes, and when he had sated his mad lust,
was dispatched by his freed man Doryphorus; for he was even married to this man
in the same way that he himself had married Sporus, going so far as to imitate
the cries and lamentations of a maiden being deflowered. (Ibid:
compared to the character of Atreus, there is little doubt that the madness in
Nero was not reflected in Senecas works.
Yet this is perhaps most evident in terms of particular plots devised by
Nero against those of his own family.
It is not by accident that Seneca chose to parallel Nero against a
mythological figure that worked from within to destroy his own family. Seneca was still residing under Neros
command when Nero determined that the Lady Agrippina was trying to kill
him. (There is some evidence for this,
as the lady was no doubt aware of her sons uncertain mental qualities, but she
is presumed to just wait until after Neros certain eventual and dire
end..) (Scarre: 48)
Although Suetonius suggests in his histories that Nero had incestuous
relations with his mother, Nero determined that he needed to kill his own
mother in order to save himself from her manipulations. Seneca, a great friend of the lady, was
unwilling to join in the plot and was eventually coerced into aiding in her
scene is mirrored in Thyestes, where Seneca laments the unpunished deaths of
Thyestes children. Seneca, speaking
through his writings, purges his feelings in the following passage:
At home in Rome, someone has his own
half-brother poisoned at dinner. Everyone sees but says nothing and does
nothing. Then he murders his own
mother, and nothing happens, nothing at all. The sun continues to rise in the
east and travel its usual course across a clear baby-blue heaven, but how? Is
there no justice? Are there no gods to keep such foulness away from the
world?” (Tarrant: 93)
in his play, Senecas gods rise up to deliver punishment both on Atreus and his
child Agamemnon, it is plain that Seneca saw no such redemption or retribution
occurring within his own life. Nero was
allowed to run free, and according to Suetonius he was a vicious and abusive
emperor who worked to destroy his own people through the expressions of his
madness. This is quite possibly why
Seneca was involved in the scheme to assassinate the emperor three years after
he was banished from the capital.
character of the unnamed minister in Thyestes is yet another strong example
of Senecas personal connections with the play. This minister acts as the singular voice of reason in the
tragedy. Privy to all of Atreus plots,
the minister is able to bear witness to both the insanity of his actions and
the effects that Atreus actions have on the people of his kingdom. The unnamed minister is thus the voice of
reason for the entire kingdom. Unable
to hold any actual power, the minister is aware that the only way to provide
help for the country was to pull the king out of his madness.
the futile efforts of the minister, it can be seen that Seneca was at a loss
when dealing with Nero. Seneca
apparently remained in his position as a trusted adviser to the mad emperor for
as long as he could, providing what wisdom he could interject whenever
possible. It was only after the emperor
had lost all patience with Seneca that the politician and writer was once more
from the histories, it appears that Seneca was not willing to let himself go
quietly into that good night. Unlike
the unnamed minister from the play, Seneca is rumored to have been involved in
a plot designed to kill Nero. Whether
or not this is factual, Seneca was ordered to commit suicide in 65 C.E., only
three years after Nero had him banished from Rome. Seneca obliged, killing himself with both a knife and poison.
paper has demonstrated that the characterization of Atreus in Senecas tragedy
entitled ‘Thyestes’ is influenced by the close relationship Seneca had with the
Emperor Nero. Atreus is cast as a
madman, an individual who sought to destroy his brother through the worst of
punishments. Atreus also worked to make
the people of his kingdom conform to his whims despite the wise council of his
parallels that can be made between the character of Atreus and the Emperor Nero
are apparent. Nero allowed his madness
to dictate his actions, as did the character of Atreus. Where Nero murdered his kin out of imagined
sins, so did Atreus. Where Atreus
fought against the words of his minister, so did Nero.
cathartic properties of Senecas writing can be seen more as a purging of
Senecas anger against the gods refusal to punish Nero than a play for public
performance. The need to express the
futility of the actions that the gods did not take against Nero forced Seneca
to press the character of Atreus out of the image of Nero. Here, Seneca can be seen to explore the
relationship between a man who seemed immune from all punishment and the character
of a man who was eventually destroyed by the gods.
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